In 1897 State Representative L. E. Reeder of Ollalla
introduced a constitutional amendment for initiative and referendum that passed
the lower house by a 63 to 12 vote, but failed in the state senate.
Influential in that partial victory was House Speaker Charles E. Cline of
Olympia, who became secretary of the state's Direct Legislation League.
Another state legislator, George F. Cotterill of
Seattle, had become president of the League by 1900. By this time, however,
Cline was no longer House Speaker, and the I&R movement stagnated.
In 1907 the state's organized labor and farm groups
cooperated with the Direct Legislation League in deluging the legislature with
petitions calling for statewide I&R. Soon after, the I&R bill introduced by
State Rep. Glenn N. Ranck of Vancouver passed the lower house 66 to 26, but the
state senate defeated it 25 to 15. An I&R supporter noted that “just two forces"
opposed I&R: "special privileged corporation interests and the organized liquor
traffic," the latter because it feared voters would enact a Prohibition
The state Federation of Labor, whose president was
Charles Case, and the state Grange, whose "master" (i.e., president) was C. B.
Kegley, formed a Joint Legislative Committee that finally got the I&R amendment
through both houses of the legislature in 1911. However, the version passed by
the legislature did not allow voters to initiate state constitutional
amendments, because certain state senators, with the active support of Governor
Hay, insisted that an amendment receive at least 60 percent of all votes cast in
a general election in order to pass. The pro-I&R committee refused to accept
this compromise, and over 70 years later, there is still no provision for
initiatives to amend the state constitution in Washington. Voters ratified the
legislature’s I&R bill by a five to two margin in 1912, and in the same
election, George Cotterill was elected mayor of Seattle.
The farmer-labor Joint Legislative Committee put the
voters' newly established lawmaking powers to use immediately. They circulated
petitions to put seven initiatives on the 1914 ballot, of which five qualified,
though only one was approved by voters: a measure to abolish private employment
agencies. The intent behind this law was to stop the well-documented
exploitation of unemployed workers, particularly lumberjacks, by such agencies.
A statewide Prohibition initiative also passed in
1914, just as the liquor interests had feared. The following year
anti-initiative forces in the legislature - which was "dominated by the whiskey,
lumber, and fish interests," according to Grange Master Kegley - struck back by
passing a bill (deceptively titled "An Act to Facilitate the Operation of the
Initiative and Referendum") that would have made it virtually impossible to get
an initiative on the ballot. Progressive forces used the power of referendum to
stop the bill from going into effect. They quickly circulated petitions to block
it until voters could reject it in the November 1916 election (which they did,
by a three to one margin).
The legislature soon found a way to obstruct the
referendum provision: by attaching an "emergency clause" to a bill, they could
cause it to take effect immediately and thus make it invulnerable to referendum
petitions. Eventually, in 1929, the state supreme court ruled that the
legislature could not add an “emergency clause" to a bill in the absence of a
real emergency (State ex. rel. Satterthwaite v. Hinkle, 152 Wash. 221 ).
Property tax limitation initiatives were on the
ballot five times between 1924 and 1938. The proposals, which sought to limit
the tax levy on real and personal property to 40 mills, were passed by voters in
1932, 1934, 1936, and 1938, before the legislature acted to make the tax limit
permanent by putting it into the state constitution, a move that was approved by
voters in 1940.
Washington voters twice approved redistricting
initiatives, once in 1930 and again in 1956. The latter initiative was sponsored
by the state League of Women Voters. Another successful election reform passed
by voter initiative was permanent voter registration, enacted in 1932.
In the years of the Great Depression, economic
concerns frequently became the subject of Washington state initiatives. Voters
passed an initiative authorizing creation of public utility districts in 1930, a
measure that helped make possible the state's current system of locally
controlled, publicly owned electric utilities.
Perhaps the most innovative initiative of the 1930s
was the 1936 "Production for Use" proposal. "Production for Use" was conceived
by Upton Sinclair, the Socialist author of The Jungle, who became a Democrat in
1934 in order to run for California's governorship. This economic recovery plan
called for the government to acquire idle production facilities such as
factories, hire the unemployed to work in them, and promote sales of the goods
through cooperatives. After Sinclair lost in California, his Washington admirers
decided to give the concept a second chance by putting it on the ballot there in
1936. The Washington Commonwealth Federation, which sponsored the initiative,
was split by internal dissension that year, and little was accomplished to
promote the measure's passage. It lost by a nearly four to one margin.
Washington voters turned generous in 1948, when they
approved initiatives granting a bonus to veterans and increasing Social Security
benefits. In 1954 they rejected by a three to one margin an initiative to
restrict advertising for alcoholic beverages on television: a unique proposal
that, like "Production for Use" in 1936, never appeared on any other ballot in
One of the most important postwar reforms
accomplished by voter initiative was the establishment of the state's civil
service system, which was approved by the electorate in 1958 for county sheriff
employees and in 1960 for state employees. Prior to this, the "patronage" or
"spoils system" had filled bureaucracies with incompetent party hacks.
In 1968, the Washington State Medical Association sponsored an initiative
requiring drivers stopped by police for driving under the influence of liquor to
submit to breath tests. Voters approved it by a two to one margin. That same
year they approved a measure putting a lid on interest rates paid by retail
In 1970, environmentalists launched a petition drive
for an initiative to restrict shoreline development, more than a year before
California ecology groups launched their drive for a similar initiative. The
Washington state petition qualified for the ballot and prompted the legislature
to propose an alternative bill, which was on the 1972 ballot along with the
initiative measure. The legislature's bill received more votes, and therefore it
took effect instead of the initiative. In 1988, however, when the choice was
between an environmentalist-backed toxic waste tax and cleanup initiative and
the legislature's version, voters chose the initiative.
In 2000 along came a new initiative advocate, Tim
Eyman. Like Bill Sizemore in Oregon and Doug Bruce in Colorado, his passion was
tax reduction. He placed several initiatives on the ballot in 2000 and 2001 that
passed overwhelmingly. However, the state supreme court struck them down as
violating the state’s stringent single subject rule for initiatives.
For more information please contact the Institute's Washington
Shawn Newman at email@example.com.
This state history is based on
David Schmidt, Citizen Lawmakers: The Ballot Initiative Revolution.